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KEVIN LEININGER: Whether it’s $104 million or ‘just’ $48 million, Allen County needs to have a plan for its excess cash

Allen County has millions of cash reserves, but the president of County Council says it may be time to start talking about replacing the jail. That could cost $100 million, he said. (News-Sentinel file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Allen County plans to sell The Byron Health Center campus at 12101 Lima Road after the nursing home moves to Lake Avenue. (File photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel.com)
The county could sell the Community Corrections Building at 201 W. Superior St. for inclusion in riverfront development. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger_
Nelson Peters
Nick Jordan
Tom Harris
Kevin Leininger

As I write this, the federal government is nearly $22.6 trillion in the red. But the on-line national debt clock’s numbers are spinning so fast the total will be millions more by the time you read this. That’s bad.

Allen County government, on the other hand, reported a cash balance of about $114.5 million as of Jan. 1. But is that good?

In one sense, the answer is an obvious “yes.” If ordinary citizens are supposed to live within their means, so should government. And the county bureaucracy generally seems to do its job with a minimal amount of frills or waste.

But neither is government a bank, amassing ever-greater amounts of wealth for unspecified purposes. As Neighborhoods United’s John Modezjewski said when the group appealed the county’s plan to boost bridge taxes a few months ago, that kind of financial cushion means county residents are “either overtaxed or underserved.”

County Commissioner Nelson Peters grudgingly admits Modezjewski may have a point, but also insists the county isn’t as awash in cash as even its own books seem to indicate. Still, Peters concedes the county needs to develop a plan that will determine how much of its financial cushion the county should keep, how much it should be willing to spend – and how.

“Why should we be punished for being good conservatives? We’re not sitting on the stash of cash that’s been reported,” said Peters, who with the help of County Controller Jill Williamson crunched the numbers and figures that of the $114.5 million balance that existed on paper as of Jan. 1, about $66.6 million was earmarked for known expenditures, leaving “just” $48 million or so in unrestricted funds.

And most of that, Peters said, was contained in two accounts controlled by the County Council, not the three commissioners who comprise county government’s executive and legislative branches. The general fund’s unobligated balance stood at about $27.8 million as of Jan. 1; the “rainy day” account contained another $15 million.

Peters’ point is best illustrated by two accounts that are controlled by the commissioners. As of Jan. 1 the local income tax fund used mostly for economic development and road projects showed a paper balance of $20.5 million but was responsible for nearly $25 million in obligations, including $4.2 million for “Stellar Communities” project in eastern Allen County, $4.5 million for Electric Works and more than $1 million for projects on Diebold, Ryan and Bass roads.

A capital development fund used mostly for buildings, meanwhile, showed a balance of about $10.5 million but an actual $1.47 million shortfall because of nearly $12 million in planned obligations, including $3 million to replace elevators in the Rousseau Center (former City-County Building) and the replacement of 160 windows in the Courthouse.

Other large expenditures also loom, Peters said: It could cost millions to prepare the Lima Road campus of the Byron Health Center for sale – a sale that could also require construction of a new Youth Services center for children temporarily assigned by the courts. It’s no secret the city would like to acquire the county’s Community Corrections property on Superior Street for inclusion in riverfront development, and a replacement could cost $7 million. Commissioner Rich Beck said the county is also looking to buy more land for future private development. That could cost $5 million or so.

County Council President Tom Harris acknowledged what could be the biggest expense of them all: With many people eyeing the downtown location of the jail for possible redevelopment, it may be time to start talking about a replacement.

“To pretend it will never happen doesn’t make sense,” said Harris, who estimated a new jail could cost $100 million.

County Auditor Nick Jordan, however, isn’t convinced.

“(Officials) are great at spouting off about (projects), but nobody’s given me a timeline,” he said. “You can always say you’re going to do this or that; what’s the plan?”

Therein lies the solution; one Peters and Harris seem inclined to pursue. Peters wants to work with council to prepare a long-term plan that will chart the county’s projected revenues and needs for at least the next 10 years. “We need to be more pro-active about the whole thing,” he said.

“Continued (economic growth) has gotten us to a great position. Do we look at big issues down the road or at our current needs? We can do both,” Harris agreed.

That’s good, because in one sense the county’s numbers are even better than they seem because sale of the Byron property, jail and Community Corrections building would generate millions in additional dollars. And because of the strong economy and higher property values, tax revenues could continue to escalate. In March 2018, the county’s balance was a mere $99 million.

It’s all a very good problem to have, but having too much cash without an adequate plan for it is a problem nevertheless.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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